Through her college fund Niñas Arriba, Austin musician Gina Chavez has already helped four girls go to school.
By Sabrina Leboeuf, Photo by Nicola Gell
Soyapango, El Salvador, has a reputation for violence, but amidst the landscape of gangs and poverty, there are young women who dream of going to college and building a different future for their community. For most, those dreams never become reality.
Austin musician Gina Chavez and her wife, Jodi Granado, lived in this suburb of the capital city for eight months from 2008 to 2009. They taught English at Escuela Salesiana María Auxiliadora, an all-girls Catholic school full of students with that very dream.
“At one of our Saturday morning classes, we polled the senior class and asked who wanted to go to college. All of their hands went up,” Granado says in a video on the project’s website. “Then we asked a follow-up question and asked who was planning to go to college, and all of their hands went down. I think in that moment, that’s when the mission began for Niñas Arriba.”
After their trip, Chavez and Granado co-founded the Niñas Arriba college fund, a college-scholarship fund for women in El Salvador. So far, they have helped four young women graduate: Xiomara and Vanesa Córdova, Marta Ventura and Rosmery Choto.
When Vanesa Córdova learned she’d be receiving a scholarship that covered her tuition, books and food, as well as a paid internship with Glasswing International after graduation, she couldn’t believe it.
“We thought, ‘How could someone who didn’t share the same blood as you pay for your college?’ ” Vanesa Córdova says. “When we saw that it was really happening, we saw it like a blessing and, like I tell Gina and Jodi, they and all the people that support this family are our angels on earth.”
Because of the scholarship, Vanesa Córdova has earned more than a degree in marketing. She has traveled to countries like Guatemala and Honduras, something she never thought would happen in her wildest dreams.
After getting the opportunity to attend college and explore her interest in teaching, Ventura came out of her shell, Chavez says. For Xiomara Córdova, the scholarship aided both herself and her second child. During her internship with Glasswing International, she received the health insurance she needed, saving both their lives. After her internship ended, the company hired her as a full-time employee.
As for Choto, she now has the opportunity to have a different life. Growing up, she sold candy to earn money for herself and her epileptic mother. With a degree in international business, her plan is to leave Soyapango, El Salvador, and start her own business.
Norma Zelaya is the newest student for Niñas Arriba, kicking off the program’s second group. She’s studying food and nutrition.
“We’re really excited to welcome our newest student. Her name is Norma. She’s a little bit older. She’s actually starting college at age 23 because she’s had to put it off because she essentially has been the breadwinner for her family of nine and had to put her dreams of going to school aside,” Chavez says. “So, now she’s really excited. She’s already started school.”
Unlike the previous graduates who attended Universidad Don Bosco, Zelaya will attend Universidad Centroamericana as part of the Romero program. With Niñas Arriba as a funding arm for the school’s Romero program, scholars can now receive housing and mentors as part of their funding.
Zelaya says finding out about her scholarship made her emotional. She sees an education as a means to have better job opportunities, as well as become a source of change in the community.
“Lots of studies have shown that when you educate women in developing nations, you literally uplift entire communities, whereas often, in developing nations, when you educate a man, you are just educating a man,” Chavez says. “That’s not to say that that’s a bad thing, but it’s because of the way that women function in society, their role in the family and their role in the larger society that it has almost an immeasurable impact to educate women.”
Niñas Arriba receives its funding from concertgoers at its annual benefit concerts, individual sponsors and local businesses. The eighth annual Niñas Arriba benefit concert and silent auction will take place Aug. 3 at Antone’s Nightclub. The concert will feature Chavez, The Wind + The Wave and Shy Beast.
This year, the fundraising goal is $20,000. In the future, Chavez hopes to expand the scholarship program beyond El Salvador and continue the mission of changing the world one girl at a time.
2019 NIÑAS ARRIBA BENEFIT CONCERT
Aug. 3 | Antone’s Nightclub, 305 E. Fifth St.
VIP reception starts at 6:30 p.m.. Doors open at 7 p.m. Show starts at 8 p.m.
To learn more about Niñas Arriba and purchase tickets for the upcoming benefit concert, visit ginachavez.com/college-fund.